There is something to be said in favour of genetic engineering. As a molecular biologist, I am certain the development of this technology has profoundly improved our understanding of how life works. Medicine has been advanced a very great deal.
Even genetic engineering of food crops could – with careful safeguards – be used to benefit us all, at low risk.
But the motive behind the vast majority of GMO crops makes such caution highly unlikely.
More aptly termed transgenically-modified organisms, GMOs (short for genetically modified organisms) are plants and animals into which genes from very different organisms have been artificially inserted.
Most corn and soy grown today are GMOs. If we were very careful, we might be able to use this technology for our true benefit. We might, for example, use it to overcome fungal diseases that have plagued crops for thousands of years, especially in the developing world. Success would save many, many lives.
But attempts to use GMOs safely would require substantial safeguards to make sure that the crops would not adversely affect the environment or human health. Programs to maintain genetic diversity and existing strains – some of them 10,000 years old – would be required.
Unfortunately, nothing like these safeguards exists today. Nor are the goals behind current GMO crops so laudable. Instead, in our market-driven world, these plants have mostly been developed to sell a specific brand of herbicide and, worse, to facilitate a takeover of the food supply by multinationals like Monsanto and a few lesser competitors like Syngenta.
There has been very little safety oversight.
The result? The major crops grown in North America are now dominated by GMOs: notably, Monsanto’s Roundup-ready soy and corn strains, genetically laden with Bt-toxin. Monsanto developed its Roundup ready soy to help sell its already popular Roundup herbicide. Farmers bought into it because, for awhile, it made weed control easy. Most plants are killed by Roundup. If you can spray just that one chemical and get rid of your weeds, it saves a lot of labour.
The problem is that simply spraying the same chemical, year in, year out, on the same land evolutionarily selects for weeds that are resistant to Roundup. And, sure enough, that’s what’s happened. Farmers are now having to deal with superweeds that grow despite the Roundup spraying. Monsanto’s solution? Partner with Dow and make the soy resistant to a second herbicide to take out the new superweeds – the new addition to the Roundup formula being a component of the infamous Agent Orange.
In the same way, Bt toxin, originally from bacteria but now expressed in Monsanto’s GMO corn, has inevitably led to mass resistance in insects. No longer harmed by the toxin, they can feast on the corn as before.
Ironically, these failures sound promising. The GMOs are failing. Farmers may abandon them. But the problem is it’s very, very hard for most farmers to do that now. Monsanto has taken over the bulk of the seed supply. It’s bought up most competing seed companies. Even when a farmer tries to switch to non-GMO seed by buying from a local silo, the odds are very high the seed will be contaminated with Monsanto genes. This is because in farm country today GMO crops predominate, and pollen commonly carries their genes to non-GMO crops. The result? Almost all “non-GMO” soy and corn and canola seed in silos today is heavily laden with Monsanto’s genes. Patented genes. Grow them – however unintentionally – and you’re in trouble, because Monsanto pounces with a vengeance on anyone who would use its seeds without paying for them.
Just ask Percy Schmeiser, the non-GMO seed-saving Saskatchewan farmer who lost a 5 to 4 Canadian Supreme Court decision to Monsanto for saving and growing canola seed that had been contaminated – probably by cross-pollination from a neighbouring farm – with Monsanto’s Round-up Ready Canola gene. Schmeiser didn’t contaminate his own fields. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court ruled he must pay for Monsanto’s genetic presence in his crop. So even unwanted cross-pollination of a farmer’s crops is a profitable thing for Monsanto. What a great tool to keep farmers in line.
South of the border, this spring Monsanto had a rider inserted into an essential federal budget bill. President Obama had little choice but to sign it – the United States government would have shut down if he didn’t. Monsanto’s short insert exempts it from court oversight when its experimental GMO products are planted – even if the court later finds the crop is potentially dangerous.
Clearly, Monsanto is trying very, very hard to consolidate its power and buy time before its technology fails.
It’s scary, but there is hope – and we can help guarantee it.
What can we do?
Across North America, people are pushing for GMO labeling. Whole Foods recently announced they will require such labeling on everything they sell by 2018.
Better yet, buy organic food. Organic food is by definition GMO-free.
If you must buy conventionally grown crops, buy those that are not genetically modified. Peas, for example, are unlikely to be GM; conventional corn probably is. This fact sheet from the Center for Food Safety will help you find GMO-free foods: www.centerforfoodsafety.org/fact-sheets/1974/true-food-shoppers-guide-to-avoiding-gmos.
Write your MP, the Prime Minister and the Agriculture Minister. Tell them that you want GMO labeling and strict regulation.
Let your local supermarket manager know that you’re not buying GMOs. If we all do this, the supermarkets will respond.
We can push back. We can prevail.
David Steele is a molecular biologist at the University of British Columbia and President of Earthsave Canada. Friend Earthsave on Facebook at facebook.com/earthsavecanadafriends for an outstanding news feed on living the ecologically examined life.